There is a continuous disconnect in Eve between the game fiction and game reality. It’s not surprising, as so far, no MMO has ever pulled a successful merger of the two, but Eve has some of it’s own special stumbling blocks on the way to ever getting that to work. The roots of the problem lie deep in the past in of roleplaying games, and the peculiar art form that gets called ‘computer roleplaying games’, which MMOs are so closely related to, which has so little to do with roleplaying, but has a direct genetic lineage that can be traced all the way back to them.

I’ll try to expound on that today, and I’ll try to be brief.

A few words about history

‘Brief’ is very, very relative. I actually kept writing and scrapping huge passages of text, running off into long streams of things I should mention. But there is a time and place for it, and that time and place is past.1 For the purposes of this discussion, it’s enough to say that the wargaming roots of roleplaying games played a large part in their development and still do today.

Dungeons & Dragons, first published in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules, was the very first game properly called a ‘roleplaying game’. It was still at it’s core a wargame,2 a game mostly about people shooting, stabbing and otherwise mistreating creatures and other people, but in it a few key ideas collided in the same place for the first time:

  • It explicitly took place in a world bearing little relation to reality as observed, for it’s wargame predecessors that was very rare.
  • It concerned itself with individuals rather than units, and one player was typically in command of one such individual.
  • The basic process of the game was heavy on discourse between the game master and the players, allowing for flexibility and bringing the ‘game’ into the realm of ‘collective storytelling’.

The basic structure of many early imitations was very close to Dungeons & Dragons, repeating the very same design decisions and often, the very same genetic artifacts, like the concept of character class and level — a natural idea for a tactical level wargame, as you don’t really care about every particular soldier, but quite silly in a game with emphasis on something other than combat. For some reasons I’m still wondering about, these ideas got stuck really hard, even upon the transition of the concept to computer game medium. There’s a lot of reasons not to have the concept of a character class in a computer game, most notably the glut of special case programming this produces, but the very first attempts to adapt them to each other still lifted that idea first.

The first computer ‘roleplaying games’ had nothing in common with roleplaying games other than the mathematical model of the world — computers of the day simply could not handle the discourse-based storytelling even in theory,3 so the mathematics formed the ‘game’ part, and story was presented not as what happens to you on the battlefield, but as something that almost runs in parallel to that, or exists in islands in the world otherwise almost completely populated by enemies to kill. Which is not surprising, as the very earliest examples — the so-called ‘roguelikes‘ of the 80s — did not have more than a few lines of story for the entire game, and relied instead on a procedurally generated world, because the data storage capability of the day simply did not allow them to have a predefined one. The ‘story’ was about which battles you engage in when.

Ultima series pioneered the said ‘islands of story’, and became the template for further computer roleplaying games just like Dungeons & Dragons remained the template for tabletop roleplaying for decades. But only by the fourth installment, Ultima IV, anything resembling a non-linear storyline where the player is an active participant who’s choices, rather than skill at seeking the optimal way through character advancement, matter, has been developed. At the time it was hailed as the closest ever to come to the ‘roleplaying game experience’, but in truth, computer roleplaying games still have nothing in common with what tabletop roleplayers are actually doing these days, because at no point a game world flexible enough to react to every possible crazy thing a player might want to do — and their character should be able to do — has been developed. The basic core is still about killing things one way or another, rather than interacting with characters and the environment.

The earliest predecessors of modern MMOs, MUDs, branched off the computer gaming tree before Ultima, and while the early examples owe a lot to the text adventures, capable of cheaply emulating a versatile, interactive world through the use of text commands, later examples, with the exception of TinyMUD descendants,4 reduced the number of commands, crystallised the mathematics, and were the first to stumble into the Story Duplication Problem as they attempted to lift Ultima’s ideas and grow into something at least a little more than a game about hacking things up with swords.

The Story Duplication Problem

When you’re playing a single-player game, you are the Hero — anything else is rarely all that interesting, you don’t need a game to be a statistic. Even if you start out as the statistic, eventually you progress to the Hero anyway. Typically the Hero is trying to Defeat The Bad Guy and Save The World, not necessarily in that order. As a single-player game progresses, the story might take you far and wide, doing tasks from menial to world-shattering, but in the end, all of them actually produce a permanent change on the world. At least all of them that have to do with the game’s story. A tabletop roleplaying game is in demand specifically because it allows an unparallelled flexibility in inflicting yourself onto a world, but a single-player computer game comes fairly close to it in that regard.

But each such segment of a story is pre-written content. While the roguelike games rely on a procedurally generated world, the technology to procedurally generate a story still doesn’t really exist. Therefore, the amount of story is by nature finite.

Upon introducing extra players into the world, the rift between the player and the computer-controlled cardboard cutouts they interact with widens, simply by contrast between the flexibility of a player when interacting with another player, and pre-written dialogue an NPC is limited by. Every player needs to be given a chance to be the Hero.5 But if the content is irrevocably consumed, like it is in a single-player game, it will get consumed too fast to sustain more than a handful of players, no matter how much you can prepare. So the game designer is forced to make the story-based content impermanent and reentrant, often, for the same player.

As a result, you can’t be the capsuleer that vanquished Dagan, for the simple reason that everyone has at some point done it, and some people did it multiple times. Whatever you do to the computer-controlled side of the universe no longer matters, and only people who are really good at suspending their disbelief can accept such ‘interactivity’ as a basis for immersion into an imaginary world.6 This devalues any story content the designer can offer, it becomes a resource to be consumed for benefits more interesting — like character advancement, which even in games with no PVP to them is at least good for e-peen. The world freezes and becomes more static than even a single player game, and only the core remains intact — the ancient, dry bones of a tactical level wargame, which is what everyone really plays here.

Because the players can’t immerse themselves in the story together, and they rarely are ever truly alone, any MMO loses even what little ‘roleplaying’ a single-player computer roleplaying game had. The endless saving of the Damsel gets old very quickly, and if you can’t do it over and over again, you eventually reach the end to meet everyone else who did it already. Welcome to the Hero Club, enjoy not being a special snowflake.

Getting out of the rut

So far, no MMO I know of has seriously attempted to solve the problem directly by creating more capable NPCs and actually generating a story procedurally, the level of NPC logic still has not seriously progressed since Ultima series. In fact, it’s more like it degraded, as single player games have evolved some new tricks since then, while MMOs actually started treating it as a rudiment. I’m not sure why, because I do see some ways to approach this problem,7 but probably, it’s a case of "why fix what isn’t broken" when it actually is broken, but the players are just too used to it. All the approaches to push the problem aside so far have been based on introducing real people where NPCs would otherwise be.

It is a sliding scale, from occasional ‘live events’, where, from time to time, actors jump into the world and attempt to liven it up by creating a rare opportunity to produce a meaningful change, to ‘pure sandbox’, where NPCs simply do not exist, and the players are left to generate whatever story they can from what they have, with introduction of directing actors or without it.

Only the MUSH/MUX family of textual environments ever went the pure sandbox route, but that came at the cost of losing the ‘game’ part of the equation completely. Most MMOs stop at ‘live events’, and most of them don’t really achieve the intended results.

By the time a chance to participate in a live event rolls in, the players are already conditioned to treat the environment as nothing more than a resource, and by extension, treat the live event the same — as a chance to acquire character advancement, rather than as a chance to enjoy and participate in a story. It creates the misleading conclusion that the public doesn’t want or doesn’t appreciate live events — but it’s simply hard for them to treat it as anything else, having been previously trained, both by their prior experience in this game, and, what’s worse, in other games, that the story isn’t really worth their attention. While a minority calls for live events, others will argue for devoting effort to other, more pressing gameplay problems, and complain the live events aren’t sufficiently rewarding, but that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy them or don’t really want them — it’s the problem of being trained wrong from the start.

Meanwhile, in New Eden…

Story duplication is not the only problem that a MMO storyline has, it’s just the biggest, and so far, apparently believed to be unassailable barrier to reconciling the story and gameplay. The other barriers are generally a consequence of story duplication freezing the world into a stasis, however.

Imagine you’re sent to exterminate a nest of demons. It might be annoying that ten minutes later it respawns, but hardly a surprise, the inherent futility of battling a supernatural enemy from another world is naturally explained by there being more where those came from. This gets somewhat more strained when you’re exterminating rats, but you still don’t know just how many of those buggers might there be. It gets the most strained with people.

Unfortunately for Eve Online, we only fight people, and to boot, it’s large numbers of people. How large, I have already mentioned. There’s a nice series of posts by Freebooted, where he at first estimates just how many people we kill and then lets out a sigh of relief that it’s not really all that much in the grand scheme of things. Unfortunately the latter post isn’t that good of an argument — population of New Eden consistently treats as cluster-shattering disasters events like the Nyx crashing into a station (420000 dead), or the Seyllin incident (almost 500 million dead), when about 13.5 billion die to capsuleers every day. A 277 trillion population of the cluster definitely would not see the latter as more important than a bus full of tourists crashing into a chasm somewhere in India — major news in India, just a footnote for the rest of the world.

But that’s just the start of the line that the rare roleplayers of Eve try their best to avoid crossing. Start thinking about your own ship crews, and you start asking awkward questions.

  • Who’s paying them? Why isn’t that reflected in my wallet?
  • When I build ships in nullsec, where do they come from? What about wormholes?
  • Are they mad to sign up onto my ship? I’m planning to lose it in a few hours.

None of these have really good answers, and they aren’t really used in the game fiction well, at least in the canonical game fiction.

Not all of these problems are directly a consequence of story duplication though, and Eve is almost unique in having the other one — the problem of validation, which I wrote about already. It is a direct consequence of having large sandbox areas populated exclusively by players in parallel with NPC-controlled areas. Vast numbers of capsuleers should, in theory, be a major issue for NPC Empire powers, a political consideration, a planning factor, but for some reason they are never shown to be. NPC Empires are behaving irrationally, and as such, become impossible to believe even when you don’t see windows with canned dialogue on screen.

Immersion? It’s hard to get immersed in a sieve.

  1. I found myself rewriting the first chapter of my thesis, but this time in English and much more detailed, based on the things I know now that I didn’t eight years ago. I’m not really up to doing it all again this year, or, for that matter, the next.

  2. Unlike many later games, it’s direct descendants still very much are, holding tightly onto the roots.

  3. Though text adventures came very, very close.

  4. Which are a whole different ball of wax, and basically one of the purest and most advanced mediums for roleplaying available still, despite the technology being throughly antiquated. Whenever I see forum and LiveJournal roleplayers, I almost literally weep as I watch them reinvent the wheel using stones and flint tools time and time again.

  5. Or the Hero’s sidekick, for that matter. Or someone from the Hero Party. Or at least that guy who says ‘go on, I’ll hold them off’. Or an important background character. People have different tastes. But if you can’t later say proudly "I was there", there’s no point even in being a statistic, so that typically isn’t done.

  6. Even those who can, prefer to do it outside that environment, where that impermanence doesn’t get in the way. There’s considerably more roleplaying in stories written about Eve, than there is inside Eve itself. The same is true of other MMOs.

  7. But I’m saving the really neat tricks I came up with for when I actually get an industry job. In Russia, that has proven kinda difficult. :)